Earnhardt's drive toward danger

Posted: Feb 22, 2001 12:00 AM
When I opened my newspaper Monday morning and saw the oversized, extra-bold headline, my immediate reaction was that the United States must have declared war, or the president had been assassinated. What else would command this kind of news treatment? Then my eyes focused and I saw that Dale Earnhardt had died. Scanning the page, I read that thousands were in mourning, that grown men were sobbing on talk-radio, that a Southern hero had left us. I'm sorry. And I mean that. I'm sorry for all the folks who admired Earnhardt. I'm sorry for his family and for NASCAR fans who won't have as much fun at future races. But. I'm also a little bit sorry, I can't help saying, that we find ourselves stunned and riven with national shock that a man driving a 3,700-pound car at 180 mph around sharp curves might, possibly, lose control and - upon hitting a stationary wall - die. This is not a shocking development, folks. Surviving this kind of behavior year after year is shocking. It defies the rules of inevitability. Not to diminish Earnhardt's life and accomplishments, but it isn't as though he was a victim of external forces beyond his control. Or that he was stepping off a curb, minding his own business, when a Mack truck slammed him into a tree. Earnhardt knew the risks of driving heavy metal at ridiculous speeds, and at some point said, "Hey, it's worth it!" Until Sunday, presumably, it was. He had fame and wealth; he had his own museum and gift shop; he had thousands of worshippers, though I confess I'm unable to grasp the connection between driving very fast and heroism. Doubtless there's a degree of skill involved, which one might acknowledge. And daredevil, if not precisely courage. And an edginess that I do grasp - that gutsy soul-swagger that permits one to court danger and taunt death. I do grasp that piece of the show, but I don't admire it. As the mother of a son who's just learning to drive, I am contemptuous of it and that particular slice of Americana that regards fast-cars-and-you-know-the-rest as something to which one should aspire. On my worst day, my son bursts through the kitchen door and says: "Ma! I've finally figured out what I wanna be when I grow up! I wanna be a race-car driver!" "Oh, OK, honey, but don't forget to wear your seatbelt." By all accounts, Earnhardt was a great guy, and who doubts it? Great guys die every day, but few position themselves so dangerously. And almost none receive the kind of booming headlines and exhaustive media replay that Earnhardt got. Which may say far more about us than about him. Earnhardt was a modern-day gladiator, summoned to the racetrack by a vicarious, thrill-seeking crowd. Those who grieve haven't so much lost a hero as they've lost the potential for the unthinkable - the adrenal tease that any instant now Earnhardt - best of the race - might spin out. By his death on Sunday, thrill and spectacle are diminished. But the great thing about gladiators, as we all learned from the movie, is that there's always another to replace the fallen. Soon enough some brave soul will invoke Earnhardt's memory as he revs his engine and grinds into the arena. And doubtless we'll gasp, shocked into community grief, when his car swerves unexpectedly and hits a wall.